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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

D. S. Richards, editor & trans.

The Chronicle of Ibn al-Athir for the Crusading Period from al-Kamil fi’l-Ta’rikh
Pt.1: The Years 491-541/1097-1146: The Coming of the Franks and the Muslim Response

Crusades Texts in Translation 13. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing, 2006. vii + 401 pp. $99.95. ISBN 0 7546 4077 9.

Ibn al-Athir’s thirteen volume al-Kamil fi’l-Ta’rikh (The Perfect or Complete History) is one of the most important sources for the medieval Middle East, particularly for the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Although it is used frequently by most historians working on Islamic history, historians of the Crusades without knowledge of Arabic have had less access to it except for snippets of passages here and there. Thus, it is a boon to many scholars and students that it is finally being translated into English.

D. S. Richards gives a fine and highly readable translation of a fifty year period. Although the title implies that the work’s focus is on the Crusades, fortunately Richard’s editing decisions kept Ibn al-Athir’s work as it was meant to be: complete. The al-Kamil fi’l-Ta’rikh is a chronicle that ranges the entire Islamic world of the time from North Africa to India. Richards maintains that, faithfully translating it without omitting a section.

Thus while one may read it in order to study the Crusades, the reader will soon discover that the bulk of the content has little to do with the Crusades—at least directly. Indeed, the majority of the book focuses on the Seljuk Empire and the internecine squabbles among princes, pretenders, and Caliphs. Although it is not connected to the First Crusade, it quickly becomes apparent why it succeeded and why the Latin states lasted for two hundred years. Without explicitly stating it, Ibn al-Athir’s chronicle demonstrates that the Islamic world was not united in any sense. Indeed, the infighting among Seljuk princes prevented them from being too concerned with the western frontier of their empire. Although this is well known and mentioned in most books on the Crusades, one cannot truly appreciate just how dysfunctional the Seljuk state was until reading the chronicle.

Of particular interest to those scholars of the Crusades will be the sections concerning the military career of Zengi prior to becoming the master of Mosul. His actions amongst the Seljuk civil wars as well as dealing with the Caliphs clearly foreshadow his actions against the Latin kingdoms. Also at the end of each year, Ibn al-Athir would give a summary of events throughout the Islamic world. The briefs on events in Spain and North Africa supplement our knowledge of the Crusades. While the kingdom of Sicily was not the most active participant in the Crusades in the Levant, it becomes quite apparent that they, albeit not on Crusade, were active in North Africa. While not unexpected, it does enrich our understanding of events and places them in context with other events, and more importantly, how they were viewed in the Islamic world.

In regards to the translation, Richards did a masterful job of translating the flowing Arabic into English without losing many of the nuances. It is an edited text, but Richards does not add much in terms of notes of explanation. This is not necessarily a weak point of the book. His translation is sufficiently clear and the material he is translating is detailed enough that little additional explanation is necessary.

This translation is an excellent addition to any scholar’s library and should be in every university library where courses on the Crusades or medieval Middle East are taught. One can only hope that other sections of the al-Kamil fi’l-Ta’rikh will be translated. In some ways it is a pity that this work is part of the Crusades Texts in Translation series as many volumes of Ibn al-Athir’s work will not fit its scope. However, hopefully, as hinted at in the title of the book, more of the chronicle from the era of the Crusades will be forthcoming.

Timothy May

North Georgia College and State University<tmmay@ngcsu.edu>

Page Added: July 2007